H. James Williams went incognito in Nashville last year during Fisk University’s presidential search to find out about the school’s reputation. He collected data — both hard numbers about the school’s financial issues and information from alumni, faculty and students.
Now Williams is front and center, as the man responsible for reviving one of the nation’s oldest historically black universities.
The school is at a crossroads. Fisk’s accreditation status is on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, pending improvement of the school’s finances. The contentious sale of a half-share of an art collection donated by Georgia O’Keefe was finalized last year after months in court, providing a $15 million influx to the school’s endowment.
Williams, former dean of the college of business at Grand Valley State University, talks about SACS reaccreditation in terms of “when,” not “if.” He doesn’t hesitate when touting plans for new building projects — a new living center, student center and science building. That’s a noticeable change for a school that characterized itself during the art collection court proceedings as “in jeopardy.”
Williams sat down with The City Paper to talk about his first two months on the job — and the task that lies ahead.
What condition did you find things in when you arrived on Feb. 1?
Well, they’re worse than I thought, financially, but I knew I was in for a nice challenge. So, you know, I’m still encouraged. I think we’re going to be able to get things done that need to be done, and we’ve begun some of the hard work already.
When you say it’s worse than what you thought, how much worse?
By the time I took over, we had incurred — we’d already incurred a deficit beyond what I expected, and so we had to get to work right away to try to adjust so that we can do what we need to do to balance the revenues with the expenses, or balance the expenses with the revenues.
I’m sure you guys heard about the furloughs and cuts, so we did that early on and that was an interesting experience because the last thing I wanted to do as the new person is to do that.
[Editor’s note: Williams instituted 14 unpaid furlough days by June 30 for faculty and staff, in addition to 30 furlough days next school year. Faculty and staff salaries are also being cut by 1.67 percent. Williams and the four other members of the leadership staff are taking 11 percent salary cuts.]
Now on the other side, and the most important thing we’re doing, quite frankly, is we’re recruiting aggressively, and we’re recruiting top students still. We’re not going to compromise our standards.
How did the faculty and staff take the furlough news?
Now that’s the most amazing story; I’m glad you asked that, because I dreaded doing it, as you can imagine, but I had to do it, and I had to do it quickly. ... But I shared with the faculty sort of where we are and what we need to try to accomplish. I helped them understand that once we can get past this, then we can be productive and we can live the kind of academic lives that we all like to live. ...
I didn’t get a big uproar, I didn’t get folks right away screaming and yelling. ... I shared with them how I dreaded doing it, but on the other hand, it devolves upon us. If Fisk is going to survive, if Fisk is going to be revived, it devolves upon us. We’re in that moment.
We did it in the chapel; when I walked off the stage and there were a group of faculty and staff waiting to talk to me, so I knew I would hear it then — not one of those persons complained. ... Each one of them said something like, “I’m so glad you’re here. I just wanted to let you know that we support you. We understand that you didn’t create this problem. We understand that we do have a problem.”...
So that was super encouraging to me; that I didn’t expect. I expected I was going to take a lot of grief for having done what I did. And so far, I haven’t heard it around the campus at large. I do know that we had at least a person or two who called the news media a couple of days later, and I got a phone call, but we weren’t trying to hide anything. The point is that we need to get this thing fixed, and everybody knows we need to get this thing fixed.
How important is it going to be to move out from under the cloud of SACS accreditation that has kind of been hanging over the school? Do you think accomplishing that will open more things up in terms of enrollment and other factors?
Absolutely, I think it will. Again, I don’t think we’ve suffered as much as you might think. We were at 974 students in 2006 and we dropped precipitously to 533 students by 2011, so there’s something to be said for some of that that was going on, I’m sure. I’m sure the art thing didn’t help us at all either. We had some negative stuff going on in terms of publicity, there’s no doubt about it, and I’m sure that hurt us at the margins at least. But the fact that we’ve been able to maintain accreditation, and the way the accreditation process works — it’s not like you’re not accredited because you’re on probation, but you still have to explain that.
And a lot of students look at that, and then faculty and staff look at that, too, and think, “I’m not sure I want to be associated with that.” So we’re sure that once we clear ourselves from this probationary status, that that’s going to have a very neat and positive impact. I think it’ll lift the morale of all of us there on the campus. Across the country, in terms of our alumni base, I think it’s going to really make a difference.
From a fundraising standpoint, you have a pretty small base to pull from, unlike, for instance, the Grand Valley State University alumni base. How do you tap into that, and how much do you think is realistic to ask of Fisk alumni?
Well, that’s a fair question. We have some really accomplished alums, first of all, and I think many alums voted with their wallets at their displeasure with some of the things that have happened in the past. I mean, I don’t think that’s a secret, and I’m not casting aspersions at anybody, absolutely not, but I think that’s been the case. ...
I’ve been to five or six different places around the country already, meeting with alums — to try to convey the message to them, try to remind them that their alma mater really needs them, but also listening to them so that they can help us identify other friends of Fisk, and I think that’s where we’re going to do a lot of our work.
We have to make sure that we’re carrying our message to others who will become friends of Fisk, and I know we have some existing friends that we need to make sure that we’re communicating with and being transparent with so that they feel like they’re making an investment in something that’s going to not just survive, but thrive.
What are your thoughts about recruiting beyond African-American student pools?
Fisk was founded not just to serve freed slaves and not just to serve the African-American population. Fisk never thought about, from what I’ve been able to read about the history and from what I’ve learned over the past couple of months. It wasn’t about being the best African-American institution, but it was about being a top-shelf educational institution.
I did my undergraduate studies at a historically black university [North Carolina Central University], and then I’ve been at majority institutions for all my other studying, and what occurred to me is that all the majority institutions are working hard to try to have a diverse student population, a diverse faculty population, and my reaction is that’s always been good for HBCUs as well.
We have about a 15 percent minority population right now, but that includes international students. We have Caucasian students, we have Hispanic students, some of our best students are Caucasian students from across the country, and we’re going to make a concerted effort to recruit students from all racial and ethnic groups because we believe it’s valuable for education. We believe it’s valuable if you’re in a room where folks view the world different than you do, have different perspectives, have different support mechanisms in their lives.
Now that you’ve kind of been here for a couple months and been able to see the financial status of the university, looking back on the deal with Crystal Bridges Museum to sell the artwork, do you think that was the right move to make?
I’m not going to comment on that, because I wasn’t around; it wouldn’t be fair to me. I don’t know what the confluence of factors were that might have motivated the board to actually move in that direction, so I prefer not to comment on that.
With your ambitions for the school ... would you be averse to selling the remaining interest in the Van Vechten collection?
My reaction is yes, I’d be averse to selling the remaining interest, because I think that’s something that’s key for us, I think it represents a major asset, and I think the resolution, the fact that we decided to sell this undivided 50 percent interest ... I think it’s a great arrangement, and it now puts us in position to partner with Crystal Bridges Museum, it gives us another venue for more exposure for not just for Fisk, but for Nashville, for Tennessee. …
But I think it’s a valuable asset beyond the numbers, beyond what you can measure, beyond the dollars and cents, and so I want to hold dearly to that, quite frankly. ... Someone said, “Well, what are you going to do when the artwork moves to Crystal Bridges?” Well, heck, we’ve got over 4,000 pieces of art over there; one of my concerns is making sure we take care of that art the way it ought to be taken care of, and we have some other things to do to try to make sure that that happens. But we could bring out a different art collection virtually every week for months and still be in great shape.